Post-pandemic collective action for health rights and social justice is essential


This article is a part of OGR's Imagining our Post-Pandemic Futures series on the human rights practice needed for creating a better world during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.


What the world and our health systems and societies look like after this phase of the pandemic depends on how we collectively think, and in turn what we do to demand our governments and other powerful actors act differently. We must shrink the curve, and create pressure for equity in access to protective equipment, testing, treatment, safe isolation as well as innovations and any future vaccine. The actions and solidarity we collectively insist upon now will determine the extent of economic devastation in our own countries, as well as those across the globe, and the massive suffering wrought by lost livelihoods, food shortages, and increased poverty.

We must avoid returning to some romanticized version of “normal” which obscures the structural injustice in our pre-pandemic reality. Remember that just before the pandemic erupted Oxfam had announced that 200 billionaires owned as much wealth as 60% of the world’s population. But the trail of death and suffering that this horrific pandemic has created has also accomplished something where years of advocacy have failed. It has pried open the grip that neoliberalism has exercised on our collective imaginations in ways that permit far wider rethinking of our economic models and structures of global governance, our health systems, and the political economy of global health.

The alarm signals are clear. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, has warned that COVID-19 could push more than half a billion additional people into poverty. Some states have taken measures that would have seemed impossible just a few months ago, including nationalizing health systems, providing direct cash payments and suspending evictions and foreclosures, among others. Too many other states have turned to tired playbooks of cronyism and one-size-fits-all autocracy that neglects vulnerable populations.

We can organize to collectively insist on legal and policy changes to provide dramatically different distributional consequences, not just within but also between countries.

But this crisis is so widespread, and the upheaval so massive for tens of millions of people across the globe that far more people have become convinced that we desperately need to change course as a collective “global community”. Tax, anti-trust, intellectual property, financial regulation and other laws, and an antidemocratic global economic order, evolved over decades to increase private capital, shrink public resources and capacities, and make governments seem irrelevant. The global economic order became a playground for elites.  None of that was inevitable; indeed, it was the product of orchestrated actions over years. And now—just as the New Deal emerged out of the Great Depression in the United States—we can organize to collectively insist on legal and policy changes to provide dramatically different distributional consequences, not just within but also between countries. Of course, this will be a superhuman task, but as the author of The Plague, Albert Camus, said about making justice imaginable again in the wake of the cataclysm of World War II, “superhuman is the term for tasks [we humans] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.”

Equally important, we need to make advancing health and other human rights central—and in some places, even just relevant—to social justice and democratic political struggles again. Those of us who walk through this world with multiple layers of privilege need to ask ourselves, with honesty and humility, how we can best contribute. This is not the time to circle wagons around our particularities. Our campaigns for health equity, public health systems, and a truly global solidarity in health can’t be divided from movements for labor and land rights, and anti-racism and environmental campaigns.

It has become painfully evident in this pandemic that health and health systems reflect the ailing state of democracy in many of our societies.

It has become painfully evident in this pandemic that health and health systems (public health as well as medical care) reflect the ailing state of democracy in many of our societies. This isn’t just a reference to restrictions on civil liberties and deployment of surveillance technologies taken in the name of public health. The quality of democracy is reflected in the lack of justification and accountability offered for governmental decisions that include access to tests and care; the curtailment of sexual and reproductive rights; working conditions for health providers; and measures taken to protect vulnerable populations from the impacts of lockdowns during this pandemic.

We should have learned this lesson about the inextricable connections between health, health systems, and democracy long ago. Rather, we’ve accepted a discourse that treats health as specialized and technical. We’ve ignored the abominable injustice in health—unless and until the social pain simply grows too great. In the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, millions of marginalized persons across the world literally had to “act up” collectively to claim their rights and declare they were not expendable externalities but fully equal members of their societies. HIV/AIDS led to vast bodies of research and new architecture in global health governance. It also showed us that as critical as effective medical treatment will be to conquering COVID-19, collective mobilization for rights and dignity will shape the reality we face post-pandemic.

This is a new pandemic with new politics and new dynamics. But we cannot allow physical distancing to mean retreating from acting up now. On the contrary, if physical organizing is far more difficult, it is offset by the ease with which we can exchange information, build new geographies of connection across borders and movements, take coordinated actions, and forge new transnational networks in our interconnected world.

If anything, this prolonged “social distancing” should wake us all up to the fact that our actions (and inactions) have life and death impacts on others, in our communities and societies, and even across the world.  Thinking about what we owe each other and how we act needs to go beyond this pandemic. Think of climate justice, or the inequitable global economic order. What we in the global North demand of ourselves and our governments everyday shapes the life chances and choices of others in the global South.  The best thing that we could forge from this global calamity is, to paraphrase Pablo Neruda, a far deeper awareness of being diverse but equal humans and believing in our common destiny—and acting on it.


The text of this article was updated on 18 May 2020.